Those who read my posts at Script Mag and my blog at Script Gods Must Die know the story of Jane Doe, which was a movie adaptation of a 1985 play I wrote about my heroin-addicted girlfriend, Claire G. It was a story centering on the devastating effects of addiction from the POV of those living with the addict. After three runs in Chicago and Los Angeles I wrote a movie script, my first ever. We raised $250,000 fairly fast, and signed on a young actress, Calista Flockhart, who would go on to become Ally McBeal. I was chosen to direct. Now try to get your arms around this one: The movie directing thing was new to me. I had never directed a movie before. I had never even been on a movie set.
In my life.
Life Lesson 4747: When hiring a director, choose one who has previously set foot on a movie set.
How exactly do you hire a director with zero experience? Ask the brain trust—my brother Chris, Producer, and my father, the Executive Producer. The thinking might have gone like this: Paul wrote it. Hell, Paul lived it! Nobody knows the world like him. Nobody knows Atlantic City or the meat market district of New York (where we were shooting) like him. Nobody could be more passionate. Give him a shot!
All true. I had dedicated the script to the memory of my girlfriend. This movie would come as close as possible to how we actually lived it, and the tragedy of how it actually ended.
Noble sentiments… guaranteed to doom your project. As it did with Jane Doe.
Life Lesson 4748: Writers should not direct movies based on their life.
“Ah, Paul, this isn’t a documentary, it’s a feature-film.” If only someone had whispered those words in my ear. Passion is fine, but when it comes time to making a damn movie, to be fully in control of the movie-making mechanism, to be a leader to the cast and crew, to have the long view, the overview, the objectivity you need… I’m here to tell you, DISpassion is way more important.
Life Lesson 4749: Just because it happens to you, doesn’t make it interesting!
Life Lesson 4750: Just because it happens to you, doesn’t make it a movie!
Sure, you want to draw on real life as a writer. Write what you know, all those cobwebbed clichés. You must seek to find the personal truth that resonates with people. But that doesn’t mean it should be an A-to-Z, step by step re-creation of what actually happened.
Nobody cares! Nobody cares if you actually worked at the German buffet where a three-month old slice of strudel caused Mr. Moustache to have a heart attack. Nobody cares if the seagull actually shit on your head while you were talking to Grandmama. Nobody cares if your girlfriend actually died of a drug overdose.
It’s not a documentary, it’s a movie. All people care about, all you owe the audience, is a good story.
Avoid crazy shit: Like choosing locations not because they were the best choice, but because of personal history. The audience will never know that you and your girlfriend argued outside that bar, or that you actually ate at that Mexican restaurant.
I was guilty of doing crazy shit, oh yes I was. Like the night before our first day of production, sleeping in the former rooming house where I lived with Claire, to get into “the spirit of it.” And when my AD said, “Ah, Paul, you don’t have a cell phone, how do I contact you?” I replied: “You don’t.”
Doomed from the start.
Life Lesson 4751: Never hire a director who doesn’t own a cell phone.
I remember being questioned by Calista at one point, the script called for her to stash drugs in a hidden pull-out ceiling panel. She said it didn’t seem likely, that she’d never do that, and that an audience might not buy it. I said: “But that’s how Claire did it. It happened.”
WRONG! Nobody cares if it happened, dummy! This is a movie, a fiction. The only question should be: Will an audience buy it?
This is something a Columbia College freshman could fathom, but at the time, I, and others, could not. The detachment required of a director will not be found in the guy who wrote the thing.
Here’s a message to you, Rudy… infuse your words with passion and originality. Put the audience into the heads of your characters. Trap them in there with all the good and bad decisions, all the darkness and light. Then step off, step back.
Let someone else direct the movie of your life.
Learn how to direct your film with Bethany Rooney’s book,
Directors Tell the Story: Master the Craft of Television and Film Directing